EU earns Russia’s wrath at summit

KHABAROVSK: Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev condemned EU moves to strengthen ties with former Soviet states and called on Europe to help Ukraine pay for its gas supplies at a summit which failed to overcome glaring differences.

The summit held in Russia's Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk -- the most easterly venue chosen for such a meeting -- aimed to raise spirits after ties were frayed by the 2008 war with Georgia and the New Year gas crisis with Ukraine.

However smiles and statements of admiration for the beauty of remote Khabarovsk could not hide stark differences, most notably on the EU Eastern partnership plan for ex-Soviet nations.

The partnership aims to strengthen political and economic ties between the 27 EU nations and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

President Vaclav Klaus, holder of the rotating EU presidency, said the European Union had sought to reassure Russia over the plan but Medvedev said some of the states involved "see this as a partnership against Russia."

"I'll put it succinctly. We tried to convince ourselves but in the end we couldn't," said Medvedev.

"The European Union considers Russia to be its strategic partner. We must do something to make this real and not just a formal proclamation," said Klaus.

Russia has also made much of Medvedev's proposal last month for a new global energy charter to replace an Energy Charter Treaty adopted in 1991 to integrate the energy sectors of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

The EU leaders said they were ready to listen to Russia's proposals on the energy charter but said there was no reason for entirely ripping up the existing pact.

"We should not throw away agreements that already existed for years," said EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

"We are open to discussion of the proposals put forward by Russia but building on the existing agreements... without destroying, without putting under pressure the system that already exists."

Medvedev reaffirmed Russia's objections to the existing charter and said it would not take part in it.

Russia's January gas crisis with Ukraine saw consumers in several EU states deprived of Russian gas for almost two weeks, prompting a warning by Barroso at the time about Russian reliability as an energy supplier.

"It would not be good if such a (gas) crisis happened again," Barroso said at the time.

Worryingly for the European Union, Medvedev said Russia doubted Ukraine's ability to meet its gas payment obligations, the key factor in triggering the January crisis.

"We have doubts about Ukraine's ability to pay," Medvedev said, referring to four billion dollars (2.9 billion euros) needed by Ukraine to replenish its gas storage reservoirs.

The choice of Khabarovsk as summit venue -- 6,000 kilometres (3,700 miles) from Moscow but a mere 30 kilometres (20 miles) from the Chinese border -- is seen as a reminder by Russia of its status as the world's largest country.

It may also be a warning that Russia -- which has made building trade with China a priority -- has other partners if the European Union proves uncooperative.

Medvedev said earlier the city had been chosen so that the EU leaders -- who are coping with a nine-hour time difference and 10-hour flight -- "have the opportunity to appreciate Russia's greatness."

The two sides are also in the process of negotiating a new basic and legally-binding agreement on bilateral ties to replace the existing Partnership and Cooperation Agreement which has run out.

Talks on the new pact, which has concerned some ex-Soviet bloc EU members, were held up by the dispute over the Georgia war, but there have been expectations they could strike a deal by the end of the year.

Russia's envoy to the EU Vladimir Chizhov indicated however that the two sides were in no hurry.

"Neither Russia nor the EU is going to make deadlines. What counts is the quality of the future document, it needs to go further and be better" than the previous one, he said.